Posts Tagged ‘Human Nature’

The phrase “violence never solved anything” is a bit of wishfulness many think is true or at least would like to believe. It’s not true, of course. Violence puts a stop to some things while compelling others. While those may not be solutions exactly, things get done. The first lesson in that feeling of power (stemming from violence) comes in early childhood when some toddler in a preschool class hits another toddler for some unimportant reason (e.g., a disputed toy) and crying erupts. Because young kids are so attuned to each others’ emotional states, everyone might start crying in chorus without knowing why. An example of entrainment more familiar to adults is an infectious laugh. So the kid hitting another kid doesn’t solve anything exactly. Rather, hitting puts a stop to everything temporarily while everyone processes what just happened. The disputed toy is often forgotten.

Significantly, the hitter processes events differently than either the hittee or collateral criers. The experience of power to accomplish sumpinoruther takes some figuring for a toddler and is probably not an ecstatic realization like the ape at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey working out how to use a leg bone as a club to drive other apes away from a watering hole. Instead, possibilities open up if one can manage to deploy power via threats or actual punches (e.g., gimme that toy or gimme your lunch money) before someone else comes along and turns the tables. No doubt, some adult caretaker will inveigh against hitting (No hitting, Timmy!), which makes little sense to a toddler except that it’s a credible threat from someone much bigger that consequences will ensue if violence (hitting) is repeated, which makes immediate sense to someone not yet old and developed enough to reason abstractly. Indeed, throughout childhood, kids deal with the threat or actuality of being beaten up by bigger, older kids (and sadly, parents). Bullies and wimps develop out of this basic dynamic, sometimes unpredictably.

Most narrative conflict revolves around people manifesting their power over others. Power dynamics are the root of politics as well, from individuals and small-scale associations up to multinational alliances. Violence can also take nonphysical forms, such as economic violence (e.g., usury and monopoly) and rhetorical violence (e.g., propaganda and hate speech). While some may recognize violence as a tool merely to protect their watering hole and eschew using violence wantonly, others rather enjoy that feeling of power to compel others or wreck things. The latter group risks becoming psychopaths (power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely), of which history has far too many examples to countenance. In fairness, there’s a wide middle ground, too.

Channeling the seductions of power into positive endeavor is a worthwhile project. Sports might be the best example, though many sports revel in destructive powers (boxing and MMA, both combat sports) rather than more wholesome competition (target sports and racing). There’s plenty of overlap, such as American football, basketball, and hockey, all target sports (putting an object into a target) with high quotients of physical roughness and injury. My own sport is triathlon, and I’m racing in the Chicago Triathlon tomorrow, which will be for me the eleventh time. Since I’m not fast or strong except in the swim, the event is really about endurance (thus, endurance racing). I daresay most participants (nearly ten thousand tomorrow) are in it not to win it but for just that purpose: enjoying that feeling of power to endure and cross the finish line.

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Decades ago, I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Lots of inventive things in those books have stayed with me despite not having revisited them. For instance, I found the SEP (Somebody-Else’s-Problem) Field and the infinite improbability drive tantalizing concepts even though they’re jokes. Another that resonates more as I age is disorientation felt (according to Adams) because of dislocation more than 500 light-years away from home, namely, the planet of one’s origin. When I was younger, my wanderlust led me to venture out into the world (as opposed to the galaxy), though I never gave much thought to the stabilizing effect of the modest town in which I grew up before moving to a more typical American suburb and then to various cities, growing more anonymous with each step. Although I haven’t lived in that town for 25+ years, I pass through periodically and admit it still feels like home. Since moving away, it’s been swallowed up in suburban sprawl and isn’t really the same place anymore.

Reading chapter 4 of Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger brought back to me the idea of being rooted in a particular place and its culture, and more significantly, how those roots can be severed even without leaving. The main cause appears to be cultural and economic infiltration by foreign elements, which has occurred many places through mere demographic drift and in others by design or force (i.e., colonialism and globalization). How to characterize the current waves of political, economic, and climate refugees inundating Europe and the smaller migration of Central Americans (and others) into the U.S. is a good question. I admit to being a little blasé about it: like water, people gonna go where they gonna go. Sovereign states can attempt to manage immigration somewhat, but stopgap administration ultimately fails, at least in open societies. In the meantime, the intractable issue has made many Americans paranoid and irrational while our civil institutions have become decidedly inhumane in their mistreatment of refugees. The not-so-hidden migration is Chinese people into Africa. Only the last of these migrations gives off the stink of neocolonialism, but they all suggest decades of inflamed racial tension to come if not open race wars.

Mishra cites numerous authors and political leaders/revolutionaries in chapter 4 who understand and observe that modernizing and Westernizing countries, especially those attempting to catch up, produce psychic turmoil in their populations because of abandonment and transformation of their unique, local identities as they move, for instance, from predominantly agrarian social organization to urbanization in search of opportunity and in the process imitate and adopt inappropriate Western models. Mishra quotes a 1951 United Nations document discussing the costs of supposed progress:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress in impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of cast, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated. [p. 118]

Thus, men were “uprooted from rural habitats and condemned to live in the big city,” which is a reenactment of the same transformation the West underwent previously. Another insightful passage comes from the final page of Westoxification (1962) or Weststruckness (English transliteration varies) by the Iranian novelist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad:

And now I, not as an Easterner, but as one like the first Muslims, who expected to see the Resurrection on the Plain of Judgment in their lifetimes, see that Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Ingmar Bergman, and many other artists, all of them from the West, are proclaiming this same resurrection. All regard the end of human affairs with despair. Sartre’s Erostratus fires a revolver at the people in the street blindfolded; Nabokov’s protagonist drives his car into the crowd; and the stranger, Meursault, kills someone in reaction to a bad case of sunburn. These fictional endings all represent where humanity is ending up in reality, a humanity that, if it does not care to be crushed under the machine, must go about in a rhinoceros’s skin. [pp. 122–123]

It’s unclear that the resurrection referenced above is the Christian one. Nonetheless, how sobering is it to recognize that random, anonymous victims of nihilistic violence depicted in storytelling have their analogues in today’s victims of mass killings? A direct line of causality from the severed roots of place to violent incidents cannot be drawn clearly, but the loss of a clear, stabilizing sense of self, formerly situated within a community now suffering substantial losses of historical continuity and tradition, is certainly an ingredient.

More to come in pt. 2.

For readers coming to this blog post lacking context, I’m currently reading and book-blogging Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. It explores Western intellectual history that gives rise to feelings of radical discontent over injustices that have not been addressed or remedied successfully for the entirety of the modern era despite centuries of supposed progress.

Continuing from part 1, the case of Voltaire is a curious one. A true child of the Enlightenment, my inference is that he came along too late to participate in the formulation of foundational Enlightenment ideals but later became one of their chief proponents as they diffused throughout Europe and into Russia and elsewhere. He joined many, many others in a belief (against a preponderance of evidence) in human progress, if not perfectibility. (Technical progress is an entirely different matter.) One of the significant aspects of his ideology and writings was his sustained attack on Christianity, or more particularly, Catholicism. More than three centuries later, the secularization of Europe and diminished influence of medieval church dogma stand out as part of the same intellectual tradition.

Enlightenment canon includes aspirational faith in the ability of reason, mechanisms, systems, and administrative prowess to order the affairs of men properly. (How one defines properly, as distinct from equitably or justly, is a gaping hole primed for debate.) In the course of the last few centuries, history has demonstrated that instrumental logic spawned by this ideology has given rise to numerous totalitarian regimes that have subjugated entire populations, often quite cruelly, in modernizing and Westernizing projects. Voltaire found himself in the thick of such projects by willingly aligning himself with despots and rulers who victimized their own peoples in pursuit of industrialization and imitation of urbane French and British models. Russians Peter the Great (reigned May 7, 1682 to February 8, 1725) and Catherine the Great (reigned July 9, 1762 to November 17, 1796) were among those for whom Voltaire acted as apologist and intellectual co-conspirator. Here’s what Mishra has to say:

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteen century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, [effectively] postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model. [pp. 98–99]

and slightly later

… it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment. [p. 102]

No doubt plenty of rulers throughout history understood in the proverbial sense that to make an omelette, a few eggs must be broken, and that by extension, their unpopular decisions must be reshaped and propagandized to the masses to forestall open revolt. Whose eggs are ultimately broken is entirely at issue. That basic script is easily recognizable as being at work even today. Justifications for administrative violence ought to fail to convince those on the bottom rungs of society who make most of the real sacrifices — except that propaganda works. Thus, the United States’ multiple, preemptive wars of aggression and regime change (never fully declared or even admitted as such) have continued to be supported or at least passively accepted by a majority of Americans until quite recently. Mishra makes this very same point using an example different from mine:

… cossetted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an idea society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute … a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination, authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering. [pp. 104–105]

As I reread the chapter in preparation for this blog post, I was surprised to find somewhat less characterization of Voltaire than of Rousseau. Indeed, it is more through Rousseau’s criticism of the dominant European paradigm that the schism between competing intellectual traditions is explored. Mishra circles back to Rousseau repeatedly but does not hesitate to show where his ideas, too, are insufficient. For instance, whereas pro-Enlightenment thinkers are often characterized as being lost in abstraction and idealization (i.e., ideologically possessed), thus estranged from practical reality or history, Rousseau’s empathy and identification with commoners does not provide enough structure for Rousseau to construct a viable alternative to the historical thrust of the day. Mishra quotes a contemporary critic (Joseph de Maistre) who charged Rousseau with irresponsible radicalism:

… he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile to his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems. [p. 110]

The notion that leaders (monarchs, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, social critics, and more recently, billionaires) ought to be in the business of engineering society rather than merely managing it is tacitly assumed. Indeed, there is a parallel hubris present in Rousseau as a thought leader having questionable moral superiority through his vehement criticism of the Enlightenment:

His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time. [pp. 111–112]

This is a recapitulation of the main thesis of the book, which Mishra amplifies only a couple paragraphs later:

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power. [p. 112]

Does “the incendiary appeal of victimhood” sound like a potent component of today’s Zeitgeist? Or for that matter “militant lowbrow” (names withheld)? At the end of the 18th century, Voltaire and Rousseau were among the primary men of letters, the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, articulating competing social views and values with major sociopolitical revolutions following shortly thereafter. The oft-observed rhyming (not repetition) of history suggests another such period may well be at hand.

The “American character,” if one can call it into being merely by virtue of naming it (the same rhetorical trick as solutionism), is diverse and ever-changing. Numerous characterizations have been offered throughout history, with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835 and 1840) being perhaps the one cited most frequently despite its outdatedness. Much in American character has changed since that time, and it’s highly questionable to think it was unified even then. However, as a means of understanding ourselves, it’s as good a place to start as any. A standard criticism of American character as seen from outside (i.e., when Americans travel abroad) is the so-called ugly American: loud, inconsiderate, boorish, and entitled. Not much to argue with there. A more contemporary assessment by Morris Berman, found throughout his “American trilogy,” is that we Americans are actually quite stupid, unaccountably proud of it, and constantly hustling (in the pejorative sense) in pursuit of material success. These descriptions don’t quite match up with familiar jingoism about how great America is (and of course, Americans), leading to non-Americans clamoring to emigrate here, or the self-worship we indulge in every national holiday celebrating political and military history (e.g., Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day).

I recently ran afoul of another ugly aspect of our national character: our tendency toward aggression and violence. In truth, this is hardly unique to Americans. Yet it came up glaringly in the context of a blog post at Pharyngula citing a Tweet comparing uneven application of law (and indignation among online chatterers?) when violence is committed by the political left vs. the political right. Degree of violence clearly matters, but obvious selection bias was deployed to present an egregiously lop-sided perspective. Radicals on both the left and right have shown little compunction about using violence to achieve their agendas. Never mind how poorly conceived those agendas may be. What really surprised me, however, was that my basic objection to violence in all forms across the spectrum was met with snark and ad hominem attack. When did reluctance to enact violence (including going to war) until extremity demands it become controversial?

My main point was that resorting to violence typically invalidates one’s objective. It’s a desperation move. Moreover, using force (e.g., intimidation, threats, physical violence — including throwing milkshakes) against ideological opponents is essentially policing others’ thoughts. But they’re fascists, right? Violence against them is justified because they don’t eschew violence. No, wrong. Mob justice and vigilantism obviate the rule of law and criminalize any perpetrator of violence. It’s also the application of faulty instrumental logic, ceding any principled claim to moral authority. But to commentators at the blog post linked above, I’m the problem because I’m not in support of fighting fascists with full force. Guess all those masked, caped crusaders don’t recognize that they’re contributing to lawlessness and mayhem. Now even centrists come in for attack for not be radical (or aggressive, or violent) enough. Oddly silent in the comments is the blog host, P.Z. Myers, who has himself communicated approval of milkshake patrols and Nazi punching, as though the presumptive targets (identified rather haphazardly and incorrectly in many instances) have no right to their own thoughts and ideas, vile though they may be, and that violence is the right way to “teach them a lesson.” No one learns the intended lesson when the victim of violence. Rather, if not simply cowed into submission (not the same as agreement), tensions tend to escalate into further and increasing violence. See also reaction formation.

Puzzling over this weird exchange with these, my fellow Americans (the ideologically possessed ones anyway), caused me to backtrack. For instance, the definition of fascism at dictionary.com is “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.” That definition sounds more like totalitarianism or dictatorship and is backward looking, specifically to Italy’s Benito Mussolini in the period 1922 to 1943. However, like national characters, political moods and mechanisms change over time, and the recent fascist thrust in American politics isn’t limited to a single leader with dictatorial power. Accordingly, the definition above has never really satisfied me.

I’ve blogged repeatedly about incipient fascism in the U.S., the imperial presidency (usually associated with George W. Bush but also characteristic of Barack Obama), James Howard Kunstler’s prediction of a cornpone fascist coming to power (the way paved by populism), and Sheldon Wolin’s idea of inverted totalitarianism. What ties these together is how power is deployed and against what targets. More specifically, centralized power (or force) is directed against domestic populations to advance social and political objectives without broad public support for the sole benefit of holders of power. That’s a more satisfactory definition of fascism to me, certainly far better that Peter Schiff’s ridiculous equation of fascism with socialism. Domination of others to achieve objectives describes the U.S. power structure (the military-industrial-corporate complex) to a tee. That doesn’t mean manufactured consent anymore; it means bringing the public into line, especially through propaganda campaigns, silencing of criticism, prosecuting whistle-blowers, and broad surveillance, all of which boil down to policing thought. The public has complied by embracing all manner of doctrine against enlightened self-interest, the very thing that was imagined to magically promote the general welfare and keep us from wrecking things or destroying ourselves unwittingly. Moreover, public support is not really obtained through propaganda and domination, only the pretense of agreement found convincing by fools. Similarly, admiration, affection, and respect are not won with a fist. Material objectives (e.g., resource reallocation, to use a familiar euphemism) achieved through force are just common theft.

So what is Antifa doing? It’s forcibly silencing others. It’s doing the work of fascist government operatives by proxy. It’s fighting fascism by becoming fascist, not unlike the Republican-led U.S. government in 2008 seeking bailouts for banks and large corporations, handily transforming our economy into a socialist experiment (e.g, crowd-funding casino capitalism through taxation). Becoming the enemy to fight the enemy is a nice trick of inversion, and many are so flummoxed by these contradictions they resort to Orwellian doublethink to reconcile the paradox. Under such conditions, there are no arguments that can convince. Battle lines are drawn, tribal affiliations are established, and the ideological war of brother against brother, American against American, intensifies until civility crumbles around us. Civil war and revolution haven’t occurred in the U.S. for 150 years, but they are popping up regularly around the globe, often at the instigation of the U.S. government (again, acting against the public interest). Is our turn coming because we Americans have been divided and conquered instead of recognizing the real source of threat?

I put aside Harari’s book from the previous blog post in favor of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). Mishra’s sharp cultural criticism is far more convincing than Harari’s Panglossian perspective. Perhaps some of that is due to an inescapable pessimism in my own character. Either way, I’ve found the first 35 pages dense with observations of interest to me as a blogger and armchair cultural critic. Some while back, I published a post attempting to delineate (not very well, probably) what’s missing in the modern world despite its obvious material abundance. Reinforcing my own contentions, Mishra’s thesis (as I understand it so far) is this: we today share with others post-Enlightenment an array of resentments and hatreds (Fr.: ressentiment) aimed incorrectly at scapegoats for political and social failure to deliver the promises of progressive modernity equitably. For instance, Mishra describes

… flamboyant secular radicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the aesthetes who glorified war, misogyny and pyromania; the nationalists who accused Jews and liberals of rootless cosmopolitanism and celebrated irrational violence; and the nihilists, anarchists and terrorists who flourished in almost every continent against a background of cosy political-financial alliances, devastating economic crises and obscene inequalities. [pp. 10–11]

Contrast and/or compare his assessment of the recent past:

Beginning in the 1990s, a democratic revolution of aspiration … swept across the world, sparking longings for wealth, status and power, in addition to ordinary desires for stability and contentment, in the most unpromising circumstances. Egalitarian ambition broke free of old social hierarchies … The culture of [frantic] individualism went universal … The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realize the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty … individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity … is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communications … [S]hocks of modernity were once absorbed by inherited social structures of family and community, and the state’s welfare cushions [something mentioned here, too]. Today’s individuals are directly exposed to them in an age of accelerating competition on uneven playing fields, where it is easy to feel that there is no such thing as either society or state, and that there is only a war of all against all. [pp. 12–14]

These long quotes (the second one cut together from longer paragraphs) are here because Mishra is remarkably eloquent in his diagnosis of globalized culture. Although I’ve only read the prologue, I expect to find support for my long-held contention that disorienting disruptions of modernity (using Anthony Giddens’ sociological definition rather than the modish use of the term Postmodern to describe only the last few decades) create unique and formidable challenges to the formation of healthy self-image and personhood. Foremost among these challenges is an unexpectedly oppressive information environment: the world forced into full view and inciting comparison, jealousy, envy, and hatred stemming from routine and ubiquitous frustrations and humiliations as we each struggle in life getting our personal share of attention, renown, and reward.

Another reason Mishra provides for our collective anger is a deep human yearning not for anarchism or radical freedom but rather for belonging and absorption within a meaningful social context. This reminds me of Erich Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom (1941), which I read long ago but can’t remember so well anymore. I do remember quite vividly how counter-intuitive was the suggestion that absolute freedom is actually burdensome as distinguished from the usual programming we get about breaking free of all restraints. (Freedom! Liberty!) Indeed, Mishra provides a snapshot of multiple cultural and intellectual movements from the past two centuries where abandoning oneself to a cause, any cause, was preferable to the boredom and nothingness of everyday life absent purpose other than mere existence. The modern substitute for larger purpose — commodity culture — is a mere shadow of better ways of spending one’s life. Maybe commodity culture is better than sacrificing one’s life fighting wars (a common fate) or destroying others, but that’s a much longer, more difficult argument.

More to follow as my reading progresses.

As I reread what I wrote 2.5 years ago in my first blog on this topic, I surmise that the only update needed to my initial assessment is a growing pile of events that demonstrate my thesis: our corrupted information environment is too taxing on human cognition, with the result that a small but growing segment of society gets radicalized (wound up like a spring) and relatively random individuals inevitably pop, typically in a self-annihilating gush of violence. News reports bear this out periodically, as one lone-wolf kook after another takes it upon himself (are there any examples of females doing this?) to shoot or blow up some target, typically chosen irrationally or randomly though for symbolic effect. More journalists and bloggers are taking note of this activity and evolving or resurrecting nomenclature to describe it.

The earliest example I’ve found offering nomenclature for this phenomenon is a blog with a single post from 2011 (oddly, no follow-up) describing so-called stochastic terrorism. Other terms include syntactic violence, semantic violence, and epistemic violence, but they all revolve around the same point. Whether on the sending or receiving end of communications, some individuals are particularly adept at or sensitive to dog whistles that over time activate and exacerbate tendencies toward radical ideology and violence. Wired has a brief article from a few days ago discussing stochastic terrorism as jargon, which is basically what I’m doing here. Admittedly, the last of these terms, epistemic violence (alternative: epistemological violence), ranges farther afield from the end effect I’m calling wind-up toys. For instance, this article discussing structural violence is much more academic in character than when I blogged on the same term (one of a handful of “greatest hits” for this blog that return search-engine hits with some regularity). Indeed, just about any of my themes and topics can be given a dry, academic treatment. That’s not my approach (I gather opinions differ on this account, but I insist that real academic work is fundamentally different from my armchair cultural criticism), but it’s entirely valid despite being a bit remote for most readers. One can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of analysis.

If indeed it’s mere words and rhetoric that transform otherwise normal people into criminals and mass murderers, then I suppose I can understand the distorted logic of the far Left that equates words and rhetoric themselves with violence, followed by the demand that they be provided with warnings and safe spaces lest they be triggered by what they hear, read, or learn. As I understand it, the fear is not so much that vulnerable, credulous folks will be magically turned into automatons wound up and set loose in public to enact violent agendas but instead that virulent ideas and knowledge (including many awful truths of history) might cause discomfort and psychological collapse akin to what happens to when targets of hate speech and death threats are reduced, say, to quivering agoraphobia. Desire for protection from harm is thus understandable. The problem with such logic, though, is that protections immediately run afoul of free speech, a hallowed but misunderstood American institution that preempts quite a few restrictions many would have placed on the public sphere. Protections also stall learning and truth-seeking straight out of the gate. And besides, preemption of preemption doesn’t work.

In information theory, the notion of a caustic idea taking hold of an unwilling person and having its wicked way with him or her is what’s called a mind virus or meme. The viral metaphor accounts for the infectious nature of ideas as they propagate through the culture. For instance, every once in a while, a charismatic cult emerges and inducts new members, a suicide cluster appears, or suburban housewives develop wildly disproportionate phobias about Muslims or immigrants (or worse, Muslim immigrants!) poised at their doorsteps with intentions of rape and murder. Inflaming these phobias, often done by pundits and politicians, is precisely the point of semantic violence. Everyone is targeted but only a few are affected to the extreme of acting out violently. Milder but still invalid responses include the usual bigotries: nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of tribalism, “othering,” or xenophobia that seek to insulate oneself safely among like folks.

Extending the viral metaphor, to protect oneself from infectious ideas requires exposure, not insulation. Think of it as a healthy immune system built up gradually, typically early in life, through slow, steady exposure to harm. The alternative is hiding oneself away from germs and disease, which has the ironic result of weakening the immune system. For instance, I learned recently that peanut allergies can be overcome by gradual exposure — a desensitization process — but are exacerbated by removal of peanuts from one’s environment and/or diet. This is what folks mean when they say the answer to hate speech is yet more (free) speech. The nasty stuff can’t be dealt with properly when it’s quarantined, hidden away, suppressed, or criminalized. Maybe there are exceptions. Science fiction entertains those dangers with some regularity, where minds are shunted aside to become hosts for invaders of some sort. That might be overstating the danger somewhat, but violent eruptions may provide some credence.

Several politicians on the U.S. national stage have emerged in the past few years as firebrands of new politics and ideas about leadership — some salutary, others less so. Perhaps the quintessential example is Bernie Sanders, who identified himself as Socialist within the Democratic Party, a tacit acknowledgement that there are no electable third-party candidates for high office thus far. Even 45’s emergence as a de facto independent candidate within the Republican Party points to the same effect (and at roughly the same time). Ross Perot and Ralph Nader came closest in recent U.S. politics to establishing viable candidacies outside the two-party system, but their ultimate failures only reinforce the rigidity of modern party politics; it’s a closed system.

Those infusing energy and new (OK, in truth, they’re old) ideas into this closed system are intriguing. By virtue of his immediate name/brand recognition, Bernie Sanders can now go by his single given name (same is true of Hillary, Donald, and others). Supporters of Bernie’s version of Democratic Socialism are thus known as Bernie Bros, though the term is meant pejoratively. Considering his age, however, Bernie is not widely considered a viable presidential candidate in the next election cycle. Among other firebrands, I was surprised to find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to simply as AOC) described in the video embedded below as a Democratic Socialist but without any reference to Bernie (“single-handedly galvanized the American people”):

Despite the generation(s) gap, young adults had no trouble supporting Bernie three years ago but appear to have shifted their ardent support to AOC. Yet Bernie is still relevant and makes frequent statements demonstrating how well he understands the failings of the modern state, its support of the status quo, and the cult of personality behind certain high-profile politicians.

As I reflect on history, it occurs to me that many of the major advances in society (e.g., abolition, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, equal rights and abortion, and the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War) occurred not because our government led us to them but because the American people forced the issues. The most recent examples of the government yielding to the will of the people are gay marriage and cannabis/hemp legalization (still underway). I would venture that Johnson and Nixon were the last U.S. presidents who experienced palpable fear of the public. (Claims that Democrats are afraid of AOC ring hollow — so far.) As time has worn on, later presidents have been confident in their ability to buffalo the public or at least to use the power of the state to quell unrest (e.g., the Occupy movement). (Modern means of crowd control raise serious questions about the legitimacy of any government that would use them against its own citizens. I would include enemy combatants, but that is a separate issue.) In contrast with salutary examples of the public using its disruptive power over a recalcitrant government are arguably more examples where things went haywire rather badly. Looking beyond the U.S., the French Reign of Terror and the Bolsheviks are the two examples that leap immediately to mind, but there are plenty of others. The pattern appears to be a populist ideology that takes root and turns virulent and violent followed by consolidation of power by those who mange to survive the inevitable purge of dissidents.

I bring this up because we’re in a period of U.S. history characterized by populist ideological possession on both sides (left/right) of the political continuum, though politics ought to be better understood as a spectrum. Extremism has again found a home (or several), and although the early stages appear to be mild or harmless, I fear that a charismatic leader might unwittingly succeed in raising a mob. As the saying goes (from the Indiana Jones movie franchise), “You are meddling with forces you cannot possibly comprehend,” to which I would add cannot control. Positioning oneself at the head of a movement or rallying behind such an opportunist may feel like the right thing to do but could easily and quickly veer into wildly unintended consequences. How many times in history has that already occurred?

For ambulatory creatures, vision is arguably the primary sense of the five (main) senses. Humans are among those species that stand upright, facilitating a portrait orientation when interacting among ourselves. The terrestrial environment on which we live, however, is in landscape (as distinguished from the more nearly 3D environments of birds and insects in flight or marine life in rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans). My suspicion is that modest visual conflict between portrait and landscape is among the dynamics that give rise to the orienting response, a step down from the startle reflex, that demands full attention when visual environments change.

I recall reading somewhere that wholesale changes in surroundings, such as when crossing a threshold, passing through a doorway, entering or exiting a tunnel, and notably, entering and exiting an elevator, trigger the orienting response. Indeed, the flush of disorientation before one gets his or her bearings is tantamount to a mind wipe, at least momentarily. This response may also help to explain why small, bounded spaces such as interiors of vehicles (large and small) in motion feel like safe, contained, hermetically sealed personal spaces. We orient visually and kinesthetically at the level of the interior, often seated and immobile, rather than at the level of the outer landscape being traversed by the vehicle. This is true, too, of elevators, a modern contraption that confounds the nervous system almost as much as revolving doors — particularly noticeable with small children and pets until they become habituated to managing such doorways with foreknowledge of what lies beyond.

The built environment has historically included transitional spaces between inner and outer environments. Churches and cathedrals include a vestibule or narthex between the exterior door and inner door leading to the church interior or nave. Additional boundaries in church architecture mark increasing levels of hierarchy and intimacy, just as entryways of domiciles give way to increasingly personal spaces: parlor or sitting room, living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. (The sheer utility of the “necessary” room defies these conventions.) Commercial and entertainment spaces use lobbies, atria, and prosceniums in similar fashion.

What most interests me, however, is the transitional space outside of buildings. This came up in a recent conversation, where I observed that local school buildings from the early to middle part of the 20th century have a distinguished architecture set well back from the street where lawns, plazas, sidewalks, and porches leading to entrances function as transitional spaces and encourage social interaction. Ample window space, columnar entryways, and roof embellishments such as dormers, finials, cupolas, and cornices add style and character befitting dignified public buildings. In contrast, 21st-century school buildings in particular and public buildings in general, at least in the city where I live, tend toward porchless big-box warehouses built right up to the sidewalk, essentially robbing denizens of their social space. Blank, institutional walls forbid rather than invite. Consider, for example, how students gathered in a transitional space are unproblematic, whereas those congregated outside a school entrance abutting a narrow sidewalk suggest either a gauntlet to be run or an eruption of violence in the offing. (Or maybe they’re just smoking.) Anyone forced to climb past loiterers outside a commercial establishment experiences similar suspicions and discomforts.

Beautifully designed and constructed public spaces of yore — demonstrations of a sophisticated appreciation of both function and intent — have fallen out of fashion. Maybe they understood then how transitional spaces ease the orientation response, or maybe they only intuited it. Hard to say. Architectural designs of the past acknowledged and accommodated social functions and sophisticated aesthetics that are today actively discouraged except for pointless stunt architecture that usually turns into boondoggles for taxpayers. This has been the experience of many municipalities when replacing or upgrading schools, transit centers, sports arenas, and public parks. Efficient land use today drives toward omission of transitional space. One of my regular reads is James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month, which profiles one architectural misfire after the next. He often mocks the lack of transitional space, or when present, observes its open hostility to pedestrian use, including unnecessary obstacles and proximity to vehicular traffic (noise, noxious exhaust, and questionable safety) discouraging use. Chalk this up as another collapsed art (e.g., painting, music, literature, and poetry) so desperate to deny the past and establish new aesthetics that it has ruined itself.

As a student, practitioner, and patron of the fine arts, I long ago imbibed the sybaritic imploration that beauty and meaning drawn out of sensory stimulation were a significant source of enjoyment, a high calling even. Accordingly, learning to decode and appreciate the conventions of various forms of expression required effort, which was repaid and deepened over a lifetime of experience. I recognize that, because of their former close association with the European aristocracy and American moneyed class, the fine arts (Western genres) have never quite distanced themselves from charges of elitism. However, I’ve always rejected that perspective. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the fine arts have never been more available to people of all walks of life, as crowds at art galleries attest.

Beyond the fine arts, I also recognize that people have a choice of aesthetics. Maybe it’s the pageantry of sports (including the primal ferocity of combat sports); the gastronomic delight of a fine meal, liquor, or cigar; identification with a famous brand; the pampered lifestyles of the rich and famous, with their premium services, personal staffs, and entourages; the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or a 1970s American muscle car; the sartorial appointments of high fashion and couture; simple biophilia; the capabilities of a smartphone or other tech device; or the brutal rhetoric and racehorse politics of the campaign trail. Take your pick. In no way do I consider the choice of one aesthetic versus another equivalent. Differences of quality and intent are so obvious that any relativist claim asserting false equivalence ought to be dismissed out of hand. However, there is considerable leeway. One of my teachers summed up taste variance handily: “that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.”

Beauty and meaning are not interchangeable, but they are often sloppily conflated. The meaning found in earnest striving and sacrifice is a quintessential substitute for beauty. Thus, we’re routinely instructed to honor our troops for their service. Patriotic holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and others) form a thematic group. Considering how the media reflexively valorizes (rarely deploring) acts of force and mayhem authorized and carried out by the state, and how the citizenry takes that instruction and repeats it, it’s fair to say that an aesthetic attaches to such activity. For instance, some remember (with varying degrees of disgust) news anchor Brian Williams waxing rhapsodic over the Syrian conflict. Perhaps Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning provides greater context. I haven’t read the book, but the title is awfully provocative, which some read as an encomium to war. Book jacket blurbs and reviews indicate more circumspect arguments drawn from Hedges’ experience as a war correspondent.

We’re currently in the so-called season of giving. No one can escape anymore marketing harangues about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday that launch the season. None of those days have much integrity, not that they ever did, since they bleed into each other as retailers strain to get a jump on one or extend another. We’re a thoroughly consumer society, which is itself an aesthetic (maybe I should have written anesthetic). Purchasing decisions are made according to a choice of aesthetics: brand, features, looks, price, etc. An elaborate machinery of psychological prods and inducements has been developed over the decades to influence consumer behavior. (A subgenre of psychology also studies these influences and behaviors.) The same can be said of the shaping of consumer citizen opinion. While some resist being channeled into others’ prescribed thought worlds, the difficulty of maintaining truly original, independent thought in the face of a deluge of both reasonable and bad-faith influence makes succumbing nearly inevitable. Under such condition, one wonders if choice of aesthetic even really exists.

Heard a curious phrase used with some regularity lately, namely, that “we’ve Nerfed the world.” Nerf refers to the soft, foam toys popular in the 70s and beyond that made balls and projectiles essentially harmless. The implication of the phrase is that we’ve become soft and vulnerable as a result of removing the routine hazards (physical and psychological) of existence. For instance, in the early days of cell phones, I recall padded street poles (like endzone goalposts) to prevent folks with their attention fixated too intently on their phones from harming themselves when stumbling blindly down the sidewalk.

Similarly, anti-bullying sentiment has reached fevered pitch such that no level of discomfort (e.g., simple name calling) can be tolerated lest the victim be scarred for life. The balancing point between preparing children for competitive realities of the world and protecting their innocence and fragility has accordingly moved heavily in favor of the latter. Folks who never develop the resilience to suffer even modest hardships are snowflakes, and they agitate these days on college campuses (and increasingly in workplaces) to withdraw into safe spaces where their beliefs are never challenged and experiences are never challenging. The other extreme is a hostile, cruel, or at least indifferent world where no one is offered support or opportunity unless he or she falls within some special category, typically connected through family to wealth and influence. Those are entitled.

A thermostatic response (see Neil Postman for more on this metaphor) is called for here. When things veer too far toward one extreme or the other, a correction is inevitable. Neither extreme is healthy for a functioning society, though the motivations are understandable. Either it’s toughen people up by providing challenge, which risks brutalizing people unnecessarily, or protect people from the rigors of life or consequences of their own choices to such a degree that they become dependent or dysfunctional. Where the proper balance lies is a question for the ages, but I daresay most would agree it’s somewhere squarely in the middle.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a new book out called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018), which is an expansion of an earlier article in The Atlantic of the same title. (Both are callbacks to Allan Bloom’s notorious The Closing of the American Mind (1987), which I’ve read twice. Similar reuse of a famous title references Robert Bork’s Slouching Toward Gomorrah (1996).) I haven’t yet read Haidt’s book and doubt I will bother, but I read the source article when it came out. I also don’t work on a college campus and can’t judge contemporary mood compared to when I was an undergraduate, but I’m familiar with the buzzwords and ​intellectual fashions reported by academics and journalists. My alma mater is embroiled in these battles, largely in connection with identity politics. I’m also aware of detractors who believe claims of Haidt and Lukianoff (and others) are essentially hysterics limited to a narrow group of progressive colleges and universities.

As with other cultural developments that lie outside my expertise, I punt when it comes to offering (too) strong opinions. However, with this particular issue, I can’t help but to think that the two extremes coexist. A noisy group of students attending highly competitive institutions of higher education lead relatively privileged lives compared to those outside the academy, whereas high school grads and dropouts not on that track (and indeed grads of less elite schools) frequently struggle getting their lives going in early adulthood. Most of us face that struggle early on, but success, despite nonsensical crowing about the “best economy ever” from the Oval Office, is difficult to achieve now as the broad socioeconomic middle is pushed toward the upper and lower margins (mostly lower). Stock market notwithstanding, economic reality is frankly indifferent to ideology.